08/21/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

What Sequestration Means for the Department of Defense

Both political parties are currently using the threat of sequestration as a sort of doomsday weapon. "If you don't vote for our budget, sequestration will kick in and we're goners."

What is sequestration? It is $917-billion budget cut over 10 years that falls disproportionately upon the Department of Defense (DoD), which will have to forfeit $500 billion over the next 10 years. Both parties insist that this will result in the collapse of our military preparedness, making us vulnerable to China, Russia, Venezuela, aliens, etc.

Actually, the real problem for DoD is not the budget cut as much as the way it will be enacted: a 10-percent slice across the top of every program, regardless of its merits. Currently, DoD reevaluates programs every year in preparation for its next budget and may shift funds to favor programs that have become more immediate in importance, or that are more efficiently run, a process known as "reprogramming." This option doesn't exist under sequestration. Good programs will suffer, and bad ones will not be punished in the way they normally would.

The hysteria Congress has whipped up over this issue will probably force it to act to mitigate the damage, which, otherwise (and most critically to its members), would mean job cuts. But it will not act in the way sequestration was meant to force it to act: the enactment of a budget compromise. Instead, Congress will look to pass some kind of exemption for DoD as it has for war funding, or it will pass some continuing resolution that keeps the defense budget at its current level. This is unfortunate, as the real remedy, short of a budget compromise, should simply be to let sequestration set in but give the Pentagon the latitude to make its cuts at its own discretion. The result would be sort of a cleansing enema rather than disfiguring surgery.

If you want to see your congressperson sweat, just ask which major defense programs he or she supports that are on time and on budget. Because the answer is that there aren't any, ask why nothing is being done about the situation. Ask which programs, still years from completion, have maintained mission relevance. Then, ask the most discomfiting question of all: "Who is being held accountable for all the overruns, screw-ups, and strategically bad decisions that result in the squandering of tens of billions of dollars every year?"

Unfortunately, much of what goes on is too complex or technical for the average American's interests. Attempting to explain to the average person why the Littoral Combat Ship program makes a mockery of just about every fiscal principal of procurement would only draw a look of boredom. Start listing other programs like the F-35 fighter, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, or the latest class of Amphibious Assault Ship, and the constituent runs screaming.

On second thought, don't ask your congressperson. Ask DoD employees. No, not the political appointees, or even most of those people in uniform. Ask the people who have gotten into the Pentagon through merit and hard work and stay at their jobs even though they could be making two or three times as much money in private industry. In other words, ask the people who have no vested interest in our defense other than to make it as effective as possible. They will tell you about the lack of strategic vision, the continuing inter-service rivalries, the utter lack of accountability for screw-ups, and the broken procurement system.

There is no simple solution because the taint of political interference is everywhere. Procurement and personnel decisions are never made in a vacuum, but, all too often, they have to be made with one eye toward Capitol Hill. Until we have leadership that is impartial toward, knowledgeable about, and truly interested in defense reform, nothing will change, and sequestration will end up being the bombshell it threatens to be. Such reform would require revision of both the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act (responsible for DoD reorganization into its present form) and the procurement system, among other measures. It will require a task force utterly divorced from politics, and it will require the kind of will and leadership we have yet to show. Until then, it will be business as usual, made even more difficult by the nation's current financial difficulties.